How NPR built the launch pad for its first podcasts

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Illustration by Kelly Martin

My professional involvement with podcasting really got its start in a lunch line.

It was at the “old” NPR headquarters in Washington on the corner of 7th and Massachusetts Avenue, in the small cafe/sandwich counter on the top floor of the building. It was early 2005 and I had been working as a program manager at the network for less than a year.

I found myself in line behind NPR’s then-COO, Ken Stern, who asked me something along the lines of “What’s interesting?”

“Well, I have been spending a lot of time lately thinking about podcasts,” I said.

At that time, hardly anyone knew what a podcast was, including Ken. In 2005 the revolutionary “smart” device du jour was a monochrome Blackberry; we were still two years away from the first iPhone.

Ken asked me to explain.

“I think of it like a magazine or newspaper subscription, except it’s with audio files,” I said. “You copy a URL into iTunes on your computer and you start receiving new episodes whenever they’re released.”

“A lot of producers are doing it,” I added. “And I think it’s got a lot of potential for us.”

Ken seemed interested in learning more and suggested I put some time on his calendar to show him how podcasting worked.

Even though few people really understood podcasting at the time — and no one understood its real potential — it was easy to recognize how its emergence would cause anxiety in an already tense relationship between the network and its member stations.

To be honest, I didn’t follow up right away. I thought Ken was just being polite and wasn’t really all that interested. Even though few people really understood podcasting at the time — and no one understood its real potential — it was easy to recognize how its emergence would cause anxiety in an already tense relationship between the network and its member stations. GMs across the country deeply distrusted the intentions behind NPR’s digital strategies. One could easily assume that any NPR plan to get into podcasting would be viewed by stations as an attempt to bypass them and take programming directly to listeners.

At the time, the ability to share and retrieve audio files on the Internet already “worked,” but, like most things in their early iterations, it was far more complicated than most web users were prepared to deal with. More than a decade earlier, I’d posted MP3 versions of a medical advice show that I produced at WOSU in Columbus, Ohio. A number of other public radio shows did this too, but there were so few titles that they all could be listed on a modestly sized web page on an early iteration of NPR.org.

Additionally, broadband was still rolling out to consumers. Even where it was available and accessible to households, it could take longer for a web user to download an episode than to listen to it. Potential listeners had to go through a lot of trouble to get a podcast to work, and then they had to remember to come back to the website to check for any new episodes. Downloading the audio was such a pain, only dedicated diehards had the enthusiasm and dedication to go through all that.

‘This is magic’

One such person was my NPR colleague Robert Spier. He worked in the NPR Online division, as it was called then. We had been talking a lot about podcasting in the year I had worked at NPR.

Robert and I often worked together with producers of NPR’s acquired programs, including Fresh Air, Car Talk, and Radiolab. Shows like Science Friday and On the Media were already distributing themselves independently as podcasts. After meeting with their producers, Robert and I would opine that NPR shouldn’t be taking the backseat on podcast distribution. If we didn’t figure out a way to release NPR programs as podcasts, these shows would all eventually do so on their own, leaving NPR behind.

While most of us working in public radio understood the tensions between NPR and its member stations over digital strategy, very few really recognized that there was a corresponding tension between NPR and producers of many of its acquired programs. At the time, NPR’s distribution contracts were largely confined to radio broadcasts and didn’t envision there might be other platforms for audio distribution. Thus, producers of acquired programs were largely free to do whatever they wished outside of radio. Every one of them saw the potential of opening up new avenues for program distribution. At the time I talked with Ken in the lunch line, NPR was not part of their plans.

Thus, our short exchange in the cafe eventually did lead to an “introduction to podcasting” meeting in Ken’s office. Ken, Robert and I remember very few details about our conversation. In fact, when writing this I spoke to everyone mentioned in this article, often several times, to figure out the timeline and facts. For being such a pivotal moment in NPR’s history, it was poorly documented.

We all remember that Robert and I walked Ken through the process of downloading a podcast step-by-step, probably using iPodder, which was my favorite podcast aggregator at the time. When we finally played the audio we used for the demo, the expression on Ken’s face was like that of everyone who listens to a podcast for the first time — this is magic.

I remember that I pointed to the iPod that we were using and said, “This will be the future of how audio is distributed. Full stop.”

“How do you know that?” Ken asked.

“Because it solves all the problems listeners have hearing audio on a computer,” I said. “It solves problems listeners don’t even know they have yet.”

Ken was engaged and seemed to enjoy the demo, but Robert and I left his office expecting that nothing more would happen. NPR had a lot of things going on. Podcasting would never rise anywhere close to the top of that list.

But we were wrong.

One morning that spring, I was working in my office when Ken walked through the doorway.

“You have until the end of July,” he said. “You can have whomever you need, but by the end of July I want NPR to be offering podcasts.”

“But I have other projects I’m working on,” I said.

“Not anymore,” was his reply.

“I need to tell Robert,” I replied.

“Robert knows,” Ken responded. “He’s already pulling together the team. I think the first meeting is later today. Good luck.” Then he walked out of my office.

Stern speaks at a PBS conference in 2007.

It turned out that a lot had happened in between the demo and the moment when Ken told us to get started on podcasting. Other radio stations and producers had begun offering their programs as bona fide “podcasts” via RSS, or Real Simple Syndication, the code standard that originally enabled sharing of frequently updated text among websites. And before Steve Jobs shared news of Apple’s first podcasting integration during the June 2005 Worldwide Developers Conference, Apple had approached NPR about including its programs.

These new, early movements triggereda tremendous amount of existential angst inside public radio, and NPR, about podcasting. Some NPR staff and stations that had been early movers in offering public radio podcasts (like KCRW in Santa Monica, Calif., and WNYC in New York City) even suggested that in 2005 NPR had already missed the boat on podcasting. They warned that it was too late to catch up.

Obviously, they were a bit off in that projection.

‘Don’t be late’

As soon as Ken left my office, I picked up my phone and called Robert.

“What the [expletive]?” I said.

“I know,” he said. “I think there’ll be seven or eight of us. We’re going to have daily meetings starting today at 4:30. Don’t be late.”

It took a while for all of us to get our heads around the enormity of the tasks at hand. Here was a new platform with a gut-churning amount of potential, and we were supposed to “figure it out” in a matter of weeks.

That afternoon I walked into a digital media conference room filled with people I didn’t know, except for Robert. The meeting hadn’t started, but people from NPR’s digital team were already whiteboarding lists of things we needed to figure out and execute on. Much of the conversation focused on tech issues: Where do we host audio? How do we associate it with metadata? Can we automate a process to “stitch” together small audio files to make one larger audio file? Where will we put all this content inside of NPR.org?

Michael Yoch, a product manager on the digital team, pointed at me. “You’re Eric from Programming, right?” he asked. “You are going to figure out what we podcast and how it is going to sound, right? Cool.”

On to the next item.

It took a while for all of us to get our heads around the enormity of the tasks at hand. Here was a new platform with a gut-churning amount of potential, and we were supposed to “figure it out” in a matter of weeks.

In the time that had passed since my lunch-line conversation with Ken, many more people inside of NPR had become aware of podcasting. Very few really understood it, but that didn’t stop everyone from having their own deep-felt and passionate opinion on podcasting and what NPR should do. The launch team needed to heed all the third-rail issues with NPR member stations, almost all of whom were extremely suspicious and skeptical about NPR getting into podcasting. In roughly three months, we were supposed to navigate all the internal politics to come up with a slate of programs that everyone could agree on and listeners would want to seek out and listen to.

Sure, no problem.

Figuring it out

That meeting may have seemed like the first day of NPR’s journey into podcasting, but it was really just the first day for me.

Under the leadership of Maria Thomas, VP and GM for online, NPR’s digital team had implemented RSS as the underlying framework for NPR.org a year earlier, allowing NPR to offer web users hundreds of RSS feeds for NPR’s stories, shows, guests and topics. The architecture already incorporated the capacity to deliver audio feeds via RSS. So, to say that a team of eight people spent a few months one summer creating NPR podcasting is a romantic and endearing story, but it is also a bit of a myth. Or maybe more than a bit, since the technical foundation for offering podcasts was already in place. For NPR, the biggest barrier to offering podcasts was political.

Our mandate to create podcasts came with a huge caveat: We could not offer full episodes of NPR shows broadcast by member stations.

Since the Internet first took hold in the 1990s, member stations expressed growing concerns about “bypass,” or the idea that NPR would use online distribution to offer its programming directly to listeners — in essence, cutting stations out of the mix. This lack of trust led to a lot of paralyzing decisions for both NPR and stations. Local public broadcasters feared that giving NPR leeway to offer listeners digital, station-less pathways to their favorite programs would undermine the business model of public radio.

This bypass (or “channel conflict”) concern was not unique to public radio. Similar tensions would soon build between TV networks and cable companies. Cable providers, whose subscription fees were the primary revenue source for cable networks, feared that “over the top” on-demand video of TV shows would undercut their business models. By allowing viewers to go directly to the network for content on demand, they would cut out their local provider. That is exactly what happened to cable TV.

But it didn’t play out that way in public radio. As podcasting grew, so did the audiences for NPR stations. In fact, after the explosion of podcasting in 2014, most public radio stations saw record-high audience ratings and revenue over the following years.

Weekly broadcast audience of NPR

When Robert and I were advocating for the podcasting initiative back in 2005, many station leaders saw the idea as somewhat heretical. Everyone on our small team knew this.

Our mandate to create podcasts came with a huge caveat: We could not offer full episodes of NPR shows broadcast by member stations. We were to develop topic-driven podcasts (collections of education stories, politics stories or sports stories, for example); “best of” moments like “NPR Story of the Day”; and individual segments from larger programs (such as the popular puzzle segments from Weekend Edition Sunday or Frank Deford’s sports commentaries).

The task of selecting these topics was mostly guesswork: choosing content that was available on a regular cadence, cleanly excerptible, and had the strongest potential to interest listeners. Though a few NPR-distributed shows were already self-distributing episodes as podcasts, the rules were different for NPR itself. This felt like a massive and somewhat debilitating restriction, but we figured it was better than nothing and went about making it work.

While our core team consisted of roughly eight people, in truth, there were many dozens more who helped make podcasting happen at NPR. They worked on figuring out how to ingest the audio, create compilations, make different systems talk to one another, marry the right audio with the correct text and send it out into the world in the right RSS format. Practically the entire online and programming team made contributions and spent countless hours working to make NPR podcasts a reality.

‘What boundaries could we push?’

Stepping into podcasting also came with a huge number of editorial and aesthetic questions. How should NPR podcasts sound? What elements made them NPR? How did we infuse NPR’s news and programming standards into a new medium? What would be the same? What was different? What would listeners expect? What boundaries could we push? And what was the “why” to support any answer to any of these questions?

My boss and mentor Jay Kernis jumped in and provided an astonishing level of expertise, guidance and support to answer a lot of these questions about what “NPR” meant in podcasting.

We brought a lot of people together to work as a tight group and had lots of conversations about what made NPR sound like NPR in the first place. Most importantly, we discussed how that sound translated to an audience that we assumed would be slightly different and younger than listeners to NPR’s broadcast programs.

One major consideration was how to adapt to the freedoms that podcasting allows from producing to a broadcast clock. We answered a lot of questions about elements that surrounded reports and segments, considering which added to the listening experience and which simply filled time. For example, there were long discussions about using show theme music in our early podcasts. We decided to eliminate theme music, despite a lot of passionate opposition, because they served very little purpose in a listening environment without the billboards, newscasts and time posts that separate a show open from the first segment.

With NPR’s well-deserved reputation for editorial excellence and high standards, we felt a lot of pressure to get podcasting right. The problems and questions we faced weren’t all that unique to us. Many organizations, excited about podcasting, undoubtedly went through the same thought processes and problem-solving we did.

After a slight delay from our original “end of July” deadline, NPR Podcasts debuted Aug. 31, 2005, with 32 podcasts: 16 were from NPR, six from other public radio networks and 10 originated from NPR member stations. Within three weeks of the launch, 13 of the 16 NPR-produced podcasts were in the iTunes top 100 podcast chart.

As part of the bargain with stations for NPR to create podcasts, leadership had agreed, quite bizarrely, to actively avoid promoting the new slate of digital content. We were forbidden from promoting the podcasts on-air and from any attempt to get press coverage. It turned out that even if we had been able to issue a press release, the announcement would have been buried. The devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina across Louisiana and Mississippi dominated news coverage that same week.

Once our podcasts went out into the world, reactions were mostly positive. But we were repeatedly pummeled for not offering full show podcasts. The criticism nearly drowned out listeners’ enthusiasm for having any NPR podcasts. Listeners felt a bit cheated that they couldn’t access complete podcasts of their favorite shows.

Within six weeks of the podcast launch, NPR reached what we thought was a ridiculously monstrous milestone: a total of 1 million podcast downloads since launch. Never in our wildest dreams did we think we’d achieve this goal so quickly. It was such a big deal that the entire podcast team went out for drinks to celebrate (and Ken Stern picked up the tab).

By May 2006, NPR had accumulated more than 33 million downloads. Again, something we thought we’d never achieve, let alone in less than a year.

Now, fifteen years later, NPR delivers 1 million podcast downloads several times every day.

NPR began experimenting with providing full-show episodes via podcasts in spring 2006, adding to the few digital-first shows like All Songs Considered that NPR offered at launch a year earlier. This was an extremely controversial decision, approached with caution by NPR leaders and accepted somewhat begrudgingly by station leaders. Other public radio networks, such as American Public Media and Public Radio International, had begun distributing their shows as podcasts, but stations continued to object to NPR offering its programs in full. Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!, the weekly news quiz, became the first NPR show to offer a podcast of its complete episodes. Six months later, we introduced a podcast version of Fresh Air. By mid-2007, almost every NPR program except for the flagship newsmagazines was available via podcast.

I’ve spent most of the last five years out of public radio. Though I don’t have firsthand knowledge, I’m sure there is a 2020 analog to the risk aversion that surrounded the launch of NPR’s podcasts. However, despite the system challenges and early restrictions, it’s hard to argue that this slow, deliberate entry into podcasting prevented NPR from succeeding in any way. Its success is a clear demonstration of the potential upside of even a small amount of risk tolerance and smart action. Instead of the feared audience collapse, podcasting has shown in many ways that public radio’s public service doesn’t need to be tied to transmitters and broadcast towers.

Nuzum in 2004.

As we understood in a limited way in 2005 and now see daily in our work and own listening habits, the future of public service lies in meeting the audience where they are and where they want to find you.

The future belongs to those of us who travel with them.

This commentary is an unpublished chapter from Eric Nuzum’s book Make Noise: A Creator’s Guide to Podcasting and Great Audio Storytelling. He is the co-founder of Magnificent Noise, a production and consulting company.

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